An Abun­dance of “Ex­otics”

China Scenic - - Silk Road -

Look­ing at the foods sold in mar­kets and served in homes across China to­day, it is easy to find many “for­eign” or “ex­otic” veg­eta­bles. And, in­ter­est­ingly, most orig­i­nally came to th­ese mar­kets and din­ner plates via the north­west.

In 1578, Li Shizhen, the au­thor of Chi­nese med­i­cal book Ben­cao­gangmu, or Thecom­pendi­u­mof Ma­te­ri­amed­ica , wrote, “The cu­cum­ber, orig­i­nated near In­dia. The ex­plorer and im­pe­rial en­voy Zhang Qian col­lected some seeds of cu­cum­ber from West­ern Re­gions, hence it was ini­tially named ‘ hu-gua’”.

It is not only the foods them­selves that have a rich and im­por­tant his­tory in China. It is also the spices, the va­ri­ety and in­ten­sity of which are in­te­gral in Chi­nese cui­sine to­day. Chi­nese onions, gar­lic, and gin­ger are three of the most com­monly used plants to fla­vor Chi­nese dishes; in fact, most Chi­nese meat or veg­etable dishes are noth­ing with­out their strate­gic —and of­ten gen­er­ous—use. De­spite this con­tem­po­rary im­por­tance, all had to at one point be shared— traded—to be­come part of the Chi­nese din­ner plate. Zhang Qian, the in­ter­minable force be­hind the de­vel­op­ment of the Silk Road and the same man who in­tro­duced to China the cu­cum­ber, also in­tro­duced many “hu” spices, such as shal­lot (“hu-cong”), gar­lic (“hu- suan”), and co­rian­der (“hu- sui”), along with many oth­ers. Pep­per and fen­nel, also once un­known to Chi­nese cui­sine, were in­tro­duced from west­ern parts of the con­ti­nent.

Veg­eta­bles, spices, gar­nishes, and grains en­tered China through the Silk Road. Th­ese foods changed ev­ery­thing for China, but there was also an­other im­por­tant com­mod­ity that would change the course of China’s cui­sine: cook­ing oil. His­tor­i­cally, the peo­ple of the Cen­tral Plain would use the fat from pigs, cat­tle and goats as a source of but­ter, lard, and also oil. As their lo­cal seed crops lacked sub­stan­tial oil, with the even­tual in­tro­duc­tion of two oil-rich seeds, sesame and then rape­seed, ev­ery­thing changed.

Sesame orig­i­nated from the south­ern African grass­lands, far from the Cen­tral Plain. But th­ese oil­packed seeds man­aged to make their way north and out of Africa, even­tu­ally to the packs of traders ply­ing the trade routes where, ac­cord­ing to the for­mi­da­ble Qiminyaoshu, or the Essen­tial­tech­niques­forthe Wel­fare­ofthep­eo­ple , Zhang Qian en­coun­tered them in an­cient state of Dayuan (in to­day’s Fer­gana Val­ley) and brought them east. Upon its ar­rival, sesame was quickly seen as a triple bless­ing, of­fer­ing culi­nary op­por­tu­ni­ties as a gar­nish, a desert, and as a fla­vor-rich cook­ing oil, thereby un­seat­ing oils from an­i­mal fats as a key cook­ing in­gre­di­ent. How­ever, while Zhang Qian’s may be the first com­mer­cial in­tro­duc­tion of sesame to China, a spat­ter­ing of wild sesame plants had long been present in the West­ern Re­gions, such as Xin­jiang’s Tur­pan Basin. There, an­cient sesame hulls have been un­earthed near the Alagou ceme­tery (2,200–2,800 years old), suggest­ing that this seed had suc­cess­fully spread across the con­ti­nent and into the Cen­tral Plain prior to his jour­ney. Al­though Zhang Qian was not tech­ni­cally the first to bring sesame to China, it was only after his later re-in­tro­duc­tion that sesame be­came an eco­nom­i­cally vi­able and culi­nary sought after crop. And sesame reigned un­til an­other seed came and, like sesame did to an­i­mal fats, up­rooted it as the dom­i­nant oil.

Ac­cord­ing to the Com­pendi­u­mof­ma­te­ri­amed­ica , along with many other his­tor­i­cal records, rape­seed was first do­mes­ti­cated in to­day’s Gansu and north­west Qing­hai, and later in­tro­duced to the Cen­tral Plain. At first rape­seed was not used at all for its seeds, but rather for its fo­liage; it was con­sumed as a veg­etable. It is not un­til much later, dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty, that records show rape­seed be­ing used as a source of oil. To­day, rape­seed is a key eco­nomic crop and used more for gen­eral cook­ing than sesame, par­tic­u­larly in the south­west­ern prov­inces. There, dur­ing the flow­er­ing sea­son fields in bloom paint a gor­geous cas­cade of yel­low across the land, pro­vid­ing not only a beau­ti­ful pas­toral scene but im­por­tantly those rich, oil packed seeds that have helped change Chi­nese cui­sine.

If the travel of veg­eta­bles, spices and seeds across the con­ti­nent was im­por­tant in form­ing modern China, fruit could be said to have been rev­o­lu­tion­ary. In to­tal, more fruits than veg­eta­bles have crossed the ge­o­graph­i­cal gap and be­come a part of China’s “for­eign foods”. Among them was the grape.

Grapes, in Chi­nese called “pu-tao” (葡萄), are na­tive to var­i­ous places through­out the Mediter­ranean and Asia Mi­nor, par­tic­u­larly the re­gion be­tween the Caspian Sea and the south­ern shores of the Black Sea, near to­day’s Ge­or­gia. They are to­day the most widely cul­ti­vated fruit crop in the world.

Leav­ing their Mediter­ranean home, grapes fol­lowed trade routes and the Silk Road un­til they even­tu­ally ended up in the Cen­tral Plain, and then flooded—al­most lit­er­ally—into the rest of China. And with th­ese grapes came some­thing par­tic­u­larly spe­cial: wine.

The Record­soft­he­grand­his­to­rian em­pha­sized the longevity of wine: “Coun­tries in West­ern Re­gions and the sur­round­ing ar­eas use a spirit from grapes called wine, rich wine of tens of thou­sands of dan (an an­cient unit of mea­sure, roughly equal to 30 kilo­grams) that will for decades not be­come ran­cid”. In China, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence of grape vine­yards in Xin­jiang dated back as the Han and Jin dy­nas­ties, and this was ex­pected to be the ear­li­est ac­counts of grapes, and wine, in China. But in 2003, a 1.15 me­ters long grape vine spec­i­men was found in the Tur­pan in a for­got­ten an­cient ceme­tery called Yang­hai. Ex­cit­ing his­to­ri­ans, the spec­i­men was much older than those Han and Jin era ac­counts—es­ti­mates put them closer to 2,500 years old—mak­ing it, and there­fore grape cul­ti­va­tion an an­cient prac­tice in Chi­nese his­tory, much more an­cient than ex­pected.

The grapes were taken to the Cen­tral Plain from West­ern Re­gions by the hands of the same man who brought the veg­eta­bles, spices, fruits, grains and oils to China: Zhang Qian. But the his­tory here is muddy, and some sug­gest he may not have ac­tu­ally been the one to in­tro­duce grapes to the Cen­tral Plain. Re­counted briefly in the Essen­tial­tech­niques­for thewel­fare­ofthep­eo­ple , grapes may have al­ready been in the Cen­tral Plain be­fore he made his jour­ney, stat­ing: “…the re­turn of wine grapes to the re­gion is not nec­es­sar­ily due to Zhang him­self ”. More­over, Han Dy­nasty-era lit­er­ary works, pre-dat­ing Zhang Qian’s trav­els, have many in­stances of the word

more a sour drink, like a soured but­ter­milk-yo­ghurt cross. True cheese was brought into China’s Cen­tral Plain from the north­ern no­madic peo­ple. And once it ar­rived, the once cheese-less peo­ple were en­am­ored.

Under such cir­cum­stances, the Essen­tial­tech­niques­forthewel­fare­ofthep­eo­ple adds goats as one of the pri­mary source of meat for Cen­tral Plain peo­ple, while in an­other chap­ter there are spe­cific tech­ni­cal points on how to turn their milk into var­i­ous cheeses. This in­for­ma­tion clearly came from the ac­cu­mu­lated knowl­edge of many gen­er­a­tions of the no­madic peo­ple, and their experiences are re­garded as key contributors to the in­tro­duc­tion of cheese in the Chi­nese diet and cul­ture.

Along with milk, but­ter­milk, yo­ghurt, and cheese, “hu-bing” (胡饼), a type of flat wheat-bread was an­other im­por­tant in­tro­duced food from the no­mads. Though most of the world sub­sists on bread, it was only two or three hun­dred years ago that the idea came to China. In­ter­est­ingly, still to­day the Chi­nese word used to de­scribe most bread prod­ucts is “bing” (饼); how­ever, this is not the same as the word im­plies, and only a rare few “bing” prod­ucts are flat­bread-like in any man­ner. But, dur­ing the Han Dy­nasty, all known

and meals, namely the “sep­a­rate din­ing”. How­ever the north­ern no­madic peo­ple tended to bake or cook whole sheep or deer in larger con­tain­ers. After such din­ing cus­tom was in­tro­duced to Cen­tral Plain, the ap­pear­ance of th­ese larger, more com­plex meals re­quired the culi­nary tech­niques and din­ing cus­tom of this re­gion to be changed. A sim­ple stool, called a “hu-chuang” (胡床)—per­haps the first non-ed­i­ble “hu” se­ries item—were rudi­men­tary fold­able stools, that also from the West­ern Re­gions. They al­lowed peo­ple to sit at ta­bles, and their ease of use and trans­port, and comfort, even­tu­ally led to the evap­o­ra­tion of the kneel­ing tra­di­tion. There was also a need for larger serv­ing trays, lead­ing even­tu­ally to the “mo-pan” (貊盘), a more ro­bust plate that could hold th­ese larger, more com­plex meat dishes. This was im­por­tant not that in it was a size­able in­crease in serv­ing plate size, but it made the plates them­selves the cen­ter of the meal, not some­thing that could be passed from per­son to per­son and in­stead forc­ing ev­ery­one to come to the food; in ef­fect, it made meals com­mu­nal around a sin­gle, cen­tral ta­ble. To this day, the cul­ture of sit­ting around a large ta­ble with the shared dishes be­fore you is a hall­mark of a “Chi­nese din­ner”. To­day mil­lions of house­holds take part in a culi­nary cus­tom that was brought to the Cen­tral Plain sim­ply be­cause of a fold­ing stool and a few new types of foods. It is a tes­ta­ment to the con­nec­tion of trade and cul­ture.

The open­ing of China to trade not only al­lowed the ex­change of goods— ed­i­ble and ined­i­ble—but also changed cul­tures; sta­ple foods changed, culi­nary tra­di­tions changed, and so too did, even­tu­ally, the way peo­ple ate. The Chi­nese din­ner ta­ble to­day is over­flow­ing with dishes made with in­tro­duced foods, veg­eta­bles, spices, gar­nishes, fruits, breads, oils and grains that had to make their way along tor­tu­ous trade routes to their new home. And once they ar­rived, they changed Chi­nese cul­ture for­ever.

Gin­ger, taro, pump­kin & white gourd Gar­lic, Chi­nese onion, pars­ley, cu­cum­ber, car­rot & spinach

Hami melon Pome­gran­ate, wa­ter­melon & grapes Ap­ples

Korla pear Other fruit

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